Two days ago I didn’t have an opinion about the unedited bikini picture of Khloe Kardashian that was causing a stir online. Well I did, in the sense that I, like many women I know, opted to try to not have an opinion and instead say (and believe) that it’s Khloe’s right to do what she wants to her own body and to have whatever images of it out there she wants to.
In many ways, it felt like a Basics 101 of consent, and therefore the only right opinion to have about Khloe and her body, was to have no opinion. To say she looked better, worse or to opine on her decision to have that picture out there felt like varying degrees of sexism to me.
I still believe Khloe Kardashian has the right to do what she wants, say what she wants and edit and filter forevermore.
But this morning, as I landed on the lengthy statement Khloe had posted, alongside two videos of her ‘unretouched unfiltered’ body, I felt so sad, so tired and then, inevitably, so annoyed. After speaking to some friends who’ve done the same, I unfollowed Khloe on Instagram as I’ve slowly started to with lots of celebrities and fitness influencers recently.
With 136 million followers, I know, I’m sure she’ll be devastated etc. But as much as Khloe has the right to her own autonomy, I’m slowly learning that I can too curate what I see and who I listen to and therefore change the impact social media has on my mind and life.
To me, and others I’ve spoken to, I felt sad because Khloe’s statement fed into the idea I’m seeing continually perpetuated by celebrities and influencers online that to fix your body image issues, you should fix your body’s image.
Khloe’s statement was bereft of any body neutrality or acceptance I and many others struggle daily to speak about, turn on themselves and believe is the best way to counteract harmful messages women have been dealt about their body for decades (a body neutrality I believe men are largely gifted from birth by society – I know not wholly, but still). There was no conversation about acceptance or refusing to go to war with yourself.
Instead, Khloe’s statement focused on how hard she’s worked ‘to get to this point’ with her body – not her mind. While she talked about the mental impact much of the awful trolling she’s received over the years has had on her, she only talked about the ‘improvement’ journey she’s been on with her body. The way to feel better about how you look, is to change the way you look, I heard. To use Khloe’s point, to ‘take that criticism to use as motivation to get myself in the best shape of my life’.
The subtext to that depressing message is that if you’re not happy with your body, you’re not trying hard enough. In many ways, that has an ironic mirroring with the reason why many women have turned away from ‘body positivity’. Many feel that to have to love your body and its ‘flaws’ in a society that repeatedly tells us otherwise is just another cruel pressure on women. In other words: if you don’t love your body, then you’re not trying hard enough to do the mental work,andyou’re a ‘bad feminist’. Similarly, the subtext here in talking about ‘the work’ is that if you don’t love your body, you can work hard (as in physically exercising) and feel better about it.
Firstly, as many know, being thinner/harder/stronger isn’t always actually the key to finding peace. The exercise of course may help with the mental health, but that’s a totally different thing to the increased slimness of a body providing mental satisfaction. Secondly, it’s again another pressure on women and implication that they are not doing enough. Thirdly, we then get into issues of privilege – how many trainers you can afford, how much time you have, what food you can afford… if you start putting a price on happiness, that will always mean some can’t afford it.
There are other ways Khloe’s statement muddies the waters (and perhaps the sympathies) for me and others I’ve spoken to – the admission of loving ‘a good filter, good lighting and an edit here and there’ and likening it to ‘The same way I throw on some make-up, get my nails done, or wear a pair of heels to present myself to the world the way I want to be seen’. While many would take Khloe to task on the parallels she’s drawing, it again points to privilege – something Khloe herself mentions when acknowledging some might say they shouldn’t have sympathy for her or that she’s ‘signed up for all of this’. Not everyone has the filters, the time, the energy – never mind the heels, the make-up artists and the free SKIMS.
And for lots of women who do (we’ve all seen it in friends, relatives, younger colleagues) buy into the idea that they look like the way they do on the grid, the fact is they live a different reality to Khloe. They live in a reality where the number of people they see in real life without filters outnumbers the followers they have on social media (for Khloe, of course, it’s the inverse to a huge extent). There are – as has been now hugely researched and proven – real mental health affects when these two realities come into collision for normal people.
While it felt like she was saying the opposite to me, Khloe’s statement ends with ‘We cannot continue to live life trying to fit into the perfect mold [sic] of what others have set for us. Just do you and make sure your heart is happy’. So it was also difficult to read Khloe’s statement and then flick over to the Stories she’d posted since her grid post garnered worldwide attention and four million likes. Khloe was promoting her collagen powder and her brand of Good American Jeans. With the collagen again, it felt like bodily ‘self-improvement’ and trying harder was being promoted – that is obviously people’s prerogative and if a product is helping to fix issues that cause deep emotional pain, like bad skin, then many would laud her for that. But it was the Good American Jeans that felt particularly painful. Their slogan that comes up automatically on google? ‘Representing Body Acceptance’.
That seemed to speak to a wider frustration with social media culture where there’s a constant dichotomy and double-speak to the way celebrities and influencers talk about bodies. Women are constantly being gaslit in the messages people are pushing on them about bodies. The Kardashians, for instance, can promote collagen and appetite suppressant lollies, but if that’s not your bag, you could also buy the plus size jeans. All bases are covered – no attack can be wagered. Khloe also has form for this confused messaging – she hosted a TV show called Revenge Bodies which claimed to be ‘a show that is going to turn lives around with the ultimate True and Total Makeover of the exterior and interior’. It was mostly about hitting the gym to make your ex rue the day.
With this doublespeak, we’re told time and again: I felt unhappy, so for my benefit, I decided to lose all this weight – but you can’t criticise me, because it’s for my mental health and I still want to be able to talk to you about the fact that you can feel good by accepting your body, because you can do whatever you want with your body, I can too, and this is what I did, and these are some things you can do if you want to put the work in (or pay for xyz I’m promoting), but you could do nothing and you should also feel like you can do nothing, either way you have to own it and feel good about it – and no one is allowed to say anything about it all, because if you have an opinion on it, you’re shaming someone… but hey, this is just my opinion on it all.
It also then veers into the argument some have made, that the Kardashians and the industry around them have themselves perpetuated the standards that Khloe is now upset to have been judged by and trolled over. That seems an unfair judgement on one family versus decades of systemic sexism, yes – but in other ways, in the direct movement from one statement to a promotion so quickly, one you can maybe understand people jumping to.
One answer is to not listen to other people and take that out of the equation. You can choose to curate what you see. But, let’s face it, those messages are everywhere – I feel unexpectedly (and embarrassingly to be totally honest) upset and thrown off by all of this. And let’s bring ‘platforms’ into this – Khloe’s Instagrams go out to 136million people, so some must feel the same as me, if not worse. And if celebrities use platforms and spend time carefully curating everything from ads to bikini pics and there’s a business behind it, why shouldn’t the expectation be that the personal posts have the same detailed thought into them – and carry the same weight?
Conversely, this week I was buoyed by Lena Dunham’s message around her new plus-size collection. She wrote about acceptance and ‘being firmly in my plus-sized body’: ‘I yearned to find some peace and sustainability in my body. I valued my mental and physical health over an outdated image of how I thought I’d look at this age (Holly Golightly meets Courtney Love) or numbers on a scale (haven’t weighed myself in several years, turn around when they do it at the doctor, broke up with that metric when it became a ceaseless brain worm.)’ Though, perhaps putting any weight into her messaging because it makes me feel better and suits my body, is the same as what many celebrating Khloe today are doing?
Another woman whose opinion I did also – if you’ll allow it – value was Jameela Jamil, who wrote: ‘She was bullied into this mind state. But now is also a really good time to admit to surgeries, thinning photographs and videos, and to stop being part of the culture that makes girls like her hate herself. No more diet products. No more “revenge body”. When diet culture wins, everyone else loses. Even the people making money from promoting it.’ Jameela captured the feeling that in making this statement Khloe had not only made things worse, but missed an opportunity to open a very different conversation.
I’ve just written a lot of words about a woman’s body – one who has specifically asked for the conversation to stop – how feminist is that? How helpful to anyone’s body image is that? You get drawn into the similar hole as the argument around whether it’s unfeminist to try and lose weight or care about your body – from hair to make-up to six-packed abs. No wonder we can get caught up in mixed messages and confusion. The point, I guess, is that women can’t win one way or the other when it comes to bodies. And, no matter what anyone posts on Instagram on any day, that will always be something that makes me sad.